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Air pollution the leading environmental cause of death, report finds

Over 7 billion people breathe unsafe air and one in three globally face a ‘double burden’ through being exposed to household burning and outdoor air pollution, a major new study concludes.


Seven billion people, more than 95% of the world’s population, live in areas of unhealthy air, according to new global research. Further, air pollution is the leading environmental cause of death worldwide. These are the findings of the State of Global Air 2018, the annual report and interactive website published by the Health Effects Institute (HEI).

The report finds that long-term exposure to outdoor and indoor air pollution has contributed to 6.1 million premature deaths from stroke, heart attack, lung cancer and chronic lung disease.

That makes air pollution the fourth highest cause of death among all health risks, exceeded only by high blood pressure, diet, and smoking.

Indoor harm

For the first time, this year’s report and website include worldwide estimates of exposure to and health burdens of burning of solid fuels in the home. In 2016 a total of 2.5 billion people — one in three global citizens — were exposed to household air pollution from the use of solid fuels (for example coal, wood, charcoal, dung or other biomass) for cooking and heating. Most live in low- and middle-income countries in Asia and Africa, and face a double burden: exposure to both indoor and outdoor air pollution.

The report highlights that household air pollution can also be a major source of impact in outdoor air, with indoor pollution emitted to the outdoor air the largest cause of health impacts from among all sources in India, contributing to 1 in 4 air pollution related deaths India, and nearly 1 in 5 such deaths in China.

“A huge personal toll”

“Air pollution takes a huge personal toll worldwide, making it difficult to breathe for those with respiratory disease, sending the young and old to hospital, missing school and work, and contributing to early death” said Bob O’Keefe, Vice President of HEI. “The trends we report show real progress in some parts of the world – but serious challenges remain to eliminate this avoidable affliction.”

The analysis found that China and India together were responsible for over half of the total global attributable deaths. The study also finds that increasing exposure and a growing and ageing population have meant that India now rivals China for among the highest air pollution health burdens in the world, with both countries facing some 1.1 million early deaths from outdoor air pollution in 2016.

China has made initial progress, beginning to achieve air pollution declines. In contrast, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India have experienced the steepest increases in air pollution levels since 2010.

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